The Necessity of Exploration

by Col. Chris Hadfield

I think people are excited by the edge of what they don’t understand.

What’s around this corner? It’s why we go into haunted houses when we go to theme parks. We wonder what’s going to surprise us, what’s going to suddenly jump out at us, and the rest of the universe is like that. To stare up into the night sky is to stare into the ultimate haunted house of ideas that, because of the darkness and the distance, are obscured from us.

For 10, 000 years shepherds have been looking up into the night sky and then Galileo, with his first telescope, started to be able to peer with some detail into that sky, and now, it’s almost like turning over rocks of discovery as we look further and further out.

Some of Galileo’s sketches of the Moon made with his refracting telescope.

For young people, to me, its an unending open door of adventure. For them to be able to start exploring the rest of space, not just by looking up, not just by looking through a telescope, but now actually, possibly, going there. To be a person, not in a comic book, not in a Stanley Kubrick or Arthur C. Clarke movie, but a person actually leaving the Earth and travelling through space and being weightless and walking on the Moon. And there is all of the portent of going even further right now. It’s an adventure, and it’s actually happening around us right now, and I think that combination is pretty intoxicating especially for young people.

If you look at a child under development they learn to walk at about one year old, but they don’t learn to talk until about two years old. Evolution has given us the ability to explore long before it gave us the ability for anybody to explain something to us. We are by nature explorers. We go try things out. We touch them, we poke them, we stick them in our mouth, we listen to them. We, as people, have to have the ability to go and see in order to truly get an intuitive sense of how things are.

This necessity for investigation and discovery is absolutely inherent in all of us and that doesn’t end when you learn to talk. It continues throughout our entire life. Whether you’re exploring your neighbourhood, or your town, your city, your country, or even the entire world or everything beyond it, we still all have a childlike discovery in us. And that necessity is key to the future of exploration, and space travel.

The technology present in the Falcon Heavy launch was staggering. It is the largest rocket that exists right now for starters, but not only that, on its very first attempt, all of those technologies that were bolted together for the very first time meant the odds of success were tiny. And yet because of the professionalism and the engineering savvy and the experience of that group of people at SpaceX, it was successful. We’ve kicked down a door and no one can ever close it again.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launched for the first time in February 2018

We have now created a human capability that rivals the motorcar or the aeroplane. This is a new and much more widely applicable technology. This isn’t some one time use throwaway rocket that requires an enormous investment. This is part of a new application of human creativity and it is really exciting. It opens up so much opportunity to get things cheaply to lower earth orbit. And to get things cheaply to that exquisite orbit that we called geostationary, where it takes exactly 24 hours to go around the world at the same rate that the world turns so the satellite appears to be still in the sky above you, which we need for  bouncing TV signals and alike.

The Falcon Heavy side boosters successfully land ready for reuse. Image credit: SpaceX

It makes it easier to get to the Moon. There are many nations, right now, that are working very hard to land robots and eventually people on the Moon once more. China is planning to land on the Moon this year with a small biome of life.

And we’ll go even further. That ridiculously successful rocket that SpaceX launched is on its way to the asteroid belt, it’s going beyond Mars on its very first try. It was just a first attempt, but it was a revelation of an attempt and I’m excited at all the things that are going to follow.

But for many people who are trying to find a little bit of grace, trying to provide a good life and opportunity for their children, we can easily lose sight of that natural instinct to explore, especially if we never leave the confines of our own little home or street or town or country, let alone get onboard a spaceship. You can go around the whole world in 90 minutes. In the time it takes to go to a restaurant and have dinner you can go around the entire planet and see all seven and a half billion people. Now, maybe it’s easy to just be entertained by it the first time, or even the first ten times. But to go around the world 500 times or, in my case 2500 times, eventually the difference between any of us blurs. This is just one big place you can go around in an hour and a half.

Chris Hadfield conducts a space walk. Image credit: NASA

I think that has to lead to a shared understanding of the nature of the of human existence, and our desire to explore further, and therefore something of an absolute necessity for a patience and an optimism and a kindness towards each other. The barriers we create are artificial and the only reason we have these barriers is because of primitive technology. The more advanced our technology becomes, the easier it is to communicate and move around the planet and actually get to know each other. And that comes from that innate need to explore. It may not be the way we’ve done things historically but it is where we’re going, and I am greatly looking forward to it.

Col. Chris Hadfield is a retired astronaut and the first Canadian to walk in space. He served on two Space Shuttle missions and also as commander of the International Space Station. During his time in command of the ISS be came to international prominence for his online videos about life of the space station as well as his video clip for David Bowie’s Space Oddity. He has written a number of best selling books and works regularly with the Cosmic Shambles team including co-hosting Space Shambles at the Royal Albert Hall in 2018. He is on Twitter at @Cmdr_Hadfield

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